“Since the news this morning I’ve had non-stop calls from the lads across the site. Young guys with mortgages, young families, asking me for answers that I don’t have. Every single one of us is clear what we want – we want to work.” – Brian Dennis, SSI Worker, Address to Labour Party Conference, 28 September 2015
It would be difficult to over-estimate the social, economic and emotional significance of the mothballing, and probable liquidation, of the Redcar SSI Steelworks Plant for Teesside.
Middlesbrough, the largest urban area within Teesside, still affectionately referred to by many as the ‘Infant Hercules’, was a town founded on industry. The redoubtable flames of which remain an integral feature of the landscape, even to be seen in the exploding sparks of Teesside University’s logo, they are who we are. #KeepItAlight is about more than fuelling the Steelwork’s Coke ovens, it is about a desperate and determined attempt to sustain a community and its future.
The plant’s mothballing triggered an immediate loss of 1700 jobs, terrible enough, but this doesn’t take into account the supportive and associated roles that will be lost locally. Those will roll into further thousands. Such an enormous loss of well-paid, skilled, working-class jobs in a poor labour market like Teesside’s is nothing less than catastrophic.
An 80 million pound support package announced by the Conservative government will not offer Brian, his colleagues, or the young people who may have hoped to find employment one day at SSI equivalent jobs. Instead, the fund is to encourage the starting of small businesses and support the possible return to further education for the Steelworkers.
No doubt some of the newly unleashed entrepreneurs will be a great success; but self-employment is generally a poor and precarious replacement for stable, supportive employment. As for re-skilling; just by the JSA claimant count alone, a far from complete indicator of those seeking employment, September figures show 2.6 claimants per job vacancy in Tees Valley. Teessiders can re-skill as much as the local colleges will allow, there will still not be enough jobs for them to utilise those skills in.
Young people seeking employment on Teesside through apprenticeship schemes already face a dire offer – figures for May 2015 show 2498 applications were received for the 255 vacancies available. Many may choose higher education but, again, such upskilling is no guarantee of protection against the dangerously inadequate local labour market. Recent national reports indicate 58% of graduates are now under-employed; a situation which applies downward pressure as graduates take on non-graduate jobs and push the low-skilled out of the employment market altogether.
Intensified local competition for young people from a rush of older, skilled workers re-entering the job market is fundamentally damaging to their opportunities to make successful transitions. Without well-paid secure employment, independent living and future planning becomes subject to on-going worry and precarity. By not recognising and protecting the future employment opportunities for young people we do them a personal harm and disservice that has wider social implications for us all. What would you do as a young person in Teesside facing this? How would you/do you feel about ever contracting decent employment opportunities? Angry? Despairing? These are dangerous conditions, born of frustration, which can lead many to the ‘sirens of populism’.
Teesside may currently be eliciting nation-wide sympathy, but the narrative of ‘shirker’ is never far away from ‘striver’. It seems to be only a matter of time before the un- and under-employed in Teesside will be blamed for the deprived situation they find themselves in. The young people of Teesside urgently need on-going, vibrant, relevant and public sociology, drawing political attention and action exactly where it is needed – to the on-going structural issues and away from relentless individualised attack. We must #KeepItAlight.
With a previous career in youth work and development, Katy is currently a PhD student at Teesside University researching youth, precarity and class. You can find her on twitter and via e-mail at K.Mcewan@tees.ac.uk